'Being a nurse positioned me for this': MetroHealth's CEO on rising into leadership

Airica Steed, EdD, RN, appears to be a woman made to be a healthcare CEO; her story is like something out of a comic book.

Her brushes with tragedy, including the loss of four family members to cancer, have shaped her into the leader she is today. Beyond that, she is a champion for eliminating health disparities, for keeping patients out of the hospital and for making the door wider for others like her to rise into leadership.

With her passion and background, it's little wonder she became the first female, the first Black and the first nurse to take the role of CEO at Cleveland-based MetroHealth.

Here, she discusses how her personal and nursing backgrounds set her up for success.

Note: Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: As an RN, what inspired you to get into leadership and eventually become a CEO?

Dr. Airica Steed: My story is a little bit different and it really stems back to what got me into nursing in the first place. I come from four generations of nursing, multiple generations of entrepreneurship and self-made people and leaders. I have been very fortunate to have an opportunity to blend the best of both worlds and make healthcare better for everyone. 

But really what inspired me to get into leadership is a different twist: I've lost many loved one to inequitable care and I'm a two-time survivor of preeclampsia. Healthcare disparities has been a lived experience that has fueled my passion to eradicate healthcare disparities, to fix the brokenness of the system, to ensure that no one else has to go through the experiences that I've gone through due to the inadequacy of our system. I really believe that leadership and nursing is a calling and I consider this to be divine order. I've been destined to do it and I've been put in a position to advocate for the voice of others that often feel muted.

Q: Do you think having a nursing background gives you any advantages as a leader?

AS: I certainly do. I leverage it in my favor because I've sat in multiple places across a table. I can sit in a position of empathy and understanding and really channel that strength as I navigate through correcting the brokenness of our challenged healthcare system. 

Being a nurse positioned me to be a great listener, and this is one of the most critical skills that I leverage. I don't talk first, I don't act first. I intentionally focus on listening, understanding and engaging, as well as opening up more seats around the table for people to feel heard, understood, valued, and advocate for their own health. It really makes a difference. 

I was trained in critical care and emergency room nursing, which skill set has been so valuable in the wave of the COVID-19 pandemic where you had to be an expert in problem solving, troubleshooting, staying home and working under pressure. I learned those gifts and skills by being on the front lines of emergency rooms and working in high trauma, high critical situations where I've had to use that skill set profoundly.

Q: What aspect of your work or the field keeps you up at night?

AS: Healthcare disparities not only keeps me up at night, but it gets me up in the morning and keeps me channel throughout the day. We are experiencing an unimaginable healthcare crisis across the vulnerable Black and brown communities. And I, like most people in those vulnerable communities, have experienced unimaginable and unacceptable loss. I've not been deterred whatsoever by the experiences I've faced, such as losing my mother to a rare form of leukemia at 23 which was misdiagnosed twice, or my grandmothers who both died of breast cancer after also being misdiagnosed, or a year ago, my baby sister who I lost to breast cancer after being denied a basic screening that I'm confident would have saved her life. I know these experiences are so dramatic and they're so tragic for me and there's an escalation in numbers across the country where others experience similar issues as well. So most certainly, this keeps me up at night. What I'm passionate about is, how do we zero out the death gap that is experienced in those vulnerable communities? How do we not only put a dent in eradicating healthcare disparities, but how do we actually get it to net zero to where we can all say that we all had an equal chance at living a long, happy, healthy life?

I think it's important that we reimagine where healthcare is. It's, unfortunately, not going to slide back to where it was in 2019. So we have to reimagine the possibilities and part and parcel of that is to think of healthcare outside of the four walls of hospital organizations and traditional healthcare organizations. My personal goal is to lift up the health and the wealth of our communities and to treat our communities like patients. And even though I'm in the hospital business, I often say that is my goal to keep our patients out of the hospital.

Q: What advice do you have for other nurses who want to become CEOs?

AS: I often pinch myself because it is often difficult to recognize and acknowledge that I have arrived. And I represent less than 1 percent of other leaders that look like me across the country. So I was the first Black person, the first female and the first nurse to serve in this role at MetroHealth after almost 200 years. 

What we call sticky floors, glass ceilings — or from my perspective, concrete ceilings — means a lot of individuals that look like me are stuck in lower-level positions and find it hard to climb. I would say stay encouraged. Continue to fight the good fight. Don't give up, because I can honestly say my life is full of twists and turns. It's full of adversity and it's full of various experiences that were presented as challenges, but I've turned those into opportunities to succeed and thrive. If you aspire to climb, just be courageous and believe in yourself. Be your best advocate and set a legacy for others to follow. By building other people, you're building yourself.

It's also my personal commitment and goal to lean down and allow others to climb up on my shoulders, because it's other leaders that paved the way and widened the front door for others like myself. So it's my personal responsibility to do the same and pay it forward for others.

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